Today I attended the Clark Atlanta University 2012 Opening Convocation. It was inspirational and filled me with pride to be a part of this institution and to identify myself as African-American. The keynote speaker, The Reverend Dr. Joseph E. Lowery; CAU President, Dr. Brown; and Reverend William Bolden, a Civil Rights advocate all focused on today as a historically critical moment in the face of challenges to voting.
Today’s Convocation was really a political rally and voter registration drive. On a deeper level, today was my generation and the generation before mine carrying out its duty and responsibility to guide, teach, and challenge your generation to carry on the tradition of Black excellence, striving always to be our very best, making sure our voices are heard and the impact of our needs as a community are felt by those who continue to attempt to disenfranchise us of our most essential right — the right to vote.
Normally, opening convocations are more sedate and less energized. Even the program signaled that today this would be a unique program. If you attended, you know the program contains a comprehensive yet detailed historical timeline of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-2012. When I saw it, I was so pleased because I know from 20 years of experience as a college educator, what is old news for me and my generation, information we take for granted, history we know as if it were our own personal family, is ALL NEW and DISTANT for your generation.
Often adults enjoy spending a lot of time criticizing and salivating over the inadequacies (perceived and real) of today’s generation (ignorant, clueless, superficial, disrespectful, etc…). When we ask teenagers questions about who is Fannie Lou Hamer or Emmett Till and they don’t know, we’re likely to shake our heads in contempt and disgust. We turn away from the young person whom we deem hopeless. Stupidly, we turn to one another and say, “they should know!!!”
Superior adults usually move on to commiseration interspersed with a lot of shrugging of helplessness, followed by hopeless sighs about this generation…forgetting we didn’t always know either. We go on to mention how we are scared about what the future holds for our people.
It seems to me some of that criticism my generation so expertly directs toward students should be saved for ourselves. Younger people cannot know what their legacy and moral responsibilities are unless we guide and teach them. It is foolish and moreover unproductive to point out ignorance and not attempt to enlighten or teach those whom we deem ignorant.
Today, Clark Atlanta University as an institution of higher learning devoted to the development of young African-American scholars and future professionals did its job as in loco parentis, taking on some of the crucial responsibility of serving as the parent and guide of the young people whom we are privileged to serve and charged to prepare and teach.
Today was a history lesson, a cultural and political orientation, and a challenge to the next generation to keep their eyes on the prize and not shirk their duty. That lesson, orientation, and challenge were delivered in a most engaging way.
Joseph P. Lowery, the Dean of the Civil Rights Movement, a living legend, a 90 year-old jokester and elder statesman who is at once humorous and deadly serious exhorted and cajoled your generation to be better than his or mine, to keep pushing and most importantly vote.
He noted that we, as African-Americans, must protect our hard-won civil rights and not lose the equal rights for which Dr. Martin Luther King, Ralph David Abernathy, Medgar Evans, Fannie Lou Hamer, and thousands of others devoted their lives. Many of them were beaten, jailed, and killed. Because of them, Dr. Lowery pointed out its possible for us to work and study here at Clark Atlanta University — the embodiment of the idea that education and freedom are inextricably linked.
This is a truth, education equals freedom, that our forefathers, some of whom were enslaved understood even when they, themselves, were illiterate. It’s no accident that Clark College and Atlanta University, like all of the 100-plus historically black colleges and universities (HBCU’s) were founded in the mid to late 1860’s, immediately after the Civil War ended in 1865. We used to know, as Black people, what was important. Maybe as Dr. Lowery pointed out, “you know who we are, even when we don’t act like it! We are those called – the moral conscience. We are they who echo of the call of the creator. We are they who inspired Mandela to not give up on freedom as he watched us marching in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.”
If you didn’t know who you are, this wise, funny hero told you. If you do know, but don’t act like it, he reminded you.
Joseph P. Lowery asked did we know who we are as a nation when we justify torture and cast aside our identity. He was also directly asking, challenging, and even threatening to come back and haunt the young people in the audience who do not vote.
This man who is old enough to be my grandfather, 90 years old today. God willing, this elder statesman and civil rights giant will be 91 on October 6th. It was saddening and chilling to hear him say he might not be here next year. Dr. Lowery has done his job. The question is will you do yours?
Everyone who spoke today said this was a critically important moment.
Let me explain why this moment is so historically critical. The GOP (a nickname of the Republican Party — it stands for Grand Old Party) has successfully in 33 states passed laws supposedly to prevent voter fraud. Read the article. Watch the video clip of Jon Stewart. What he shows is funny but deadly serious and threatening.
I won’t ask if you’re registered to vote. I will ask how does it feel to know that republicans don’t fight fairly? They refuse to change. So, since Blacks, Latinos, poor people, and working people tend to vote Democratic, they won’t change policies to get their votes. Instead the GOP is finding ways to block these people from being able to vote at all. If you can’t win fair and square, the Republicans have decided to create unjust laws and manipulate racism and fear, claiming voter fraud with no proof of any voter fraud really happening.
One speaker today mentioned that thanks to President Obama, students and children can stay on their parents’ insurance up to 26 years-old, not be dropped at 18, like it used to be. That’s what voting got you.
College students, did you know that thanks to President Obama, Pell grants are larger now? Did you know that thanks to President Obama, the interest rate on student loans is lower and the President stopped Republicans who would have let student loan interest rates rise significantly, putting students who need those loans into deeper financial debt. These are issues that directly affect you as students of higher learning. All of this happened because in 2008, 4 years ago, those 18 year-olds and the younger generation (up to the age of 29) voted in such large numbers. Thanks to their votes, this is what you gained.
Maybe you don’t want to vote. Maybe you don’t think it matters…until you can’t.